Baseball vs. football recruiting

Why are the recruiting systems of MLB and NFL so different? Baseball scouts players from all over the place, even high school, and brings them up through the minor league farm system. NFL doesn’t seem to have any minor league system and drafts college players directly onto NFL teams in an organized draft.

I can think of a few reasons:

  1. It’s always been that way (don’t laugh it’s a valid reason)
  2. Football has a long established tradition of having colleges serve as their minor leagues
  3. Baseball doesn’t have much of a tradition of having colleges serve as their minor leagues
  4. You pretty much need to wait until you’re older and fully grown to make it at the pro level in football
  5. You can start in the major leagues in baseball at a much younger age because the size won’t kill you

Baseball was a pro sport long before football. In the old days (19th C), a player would sign with the local pro or semi-pro team. If he showed talent, his contract would be sold to a team at a higher level, and so on, ending up with the major leagues (if good enough). Most all towns had their own semi-pro team, and any good-sized town would have a minor league club (there was no competition from radio or TV, of course, so they could make a profit on admissions). Thus, a minor league system developed.

In the 40s, the St. Lous Cardinals start creating a farm system. They owned the minor league clubs (or had agreements with them) and were in control of how the player advanced. It worked out well for the Cardinals, so other teams followed suit. You didn’t have to go to college to become a pro player (and many players today are signed out of high school, though college players tend to be more common).

In football, the college game was the only one until around 1920. Pro players were people who had played for college teams, and no minor leagues were developed. People would root for a college or high school team, but not for a local pro team (especially since they could hear NFL games on the newly-developed radio). So there was no reason for a minor league system. The pros could let the colleges do that for them.

I agree with RealityChuck except that the Cardinals farm system got its start in the 1920s, not the 1940s.

At times, the Cardinals had agreements with nearly every team in certain minor leagues. If the Cardinals hadn’t have developed the farm system, they likely wouldn’t have had a chance of competing with the Yankees during the 1930s and 1940s.

I think there’s another reason: College football is a professional sport.

Yeah, yeah, I know, college players aren’t supposed to be paid. In truth, however, college football is a pro sport in every way that matters; the players are financially rewarded, the schools make millions, the networks make millions, and attendance at top games matches NFL attendance. Consequently, the Colleges are doing all the amateur recruiting. Any high school football player worth a crap has already been scouted, tested, scouted, measured, timed and scouted some more by the colleges, given a scholarship to play, and then put into an intense, professional-level training system. If tests and essays must be faked to allow the player to remain eligible, professionals see to it. (Ask Dexter Manley. But not in writing.) The NCAA is doing for the NFL what baseball (for the most part) and hockey teams have to do themselves - separate the chaff from the wheat between the ages of 16 and 19, and developing young professionals up to ages 20-22 or so.

The NFL is drawing its pool of players from what is essentially a gigantic minor professional league, producing ready-made professional football players.

College baseball is comparatively small time; it’s a TV sport and all and there’s some money in it, but it’s not even close to what college football is, not even in the same universe. Major league teams must therefore look beyond the college ranks because it’s just not guaranteed that an excellent young player will be developed by a college.

Adding to this effect is the fact that football is an American sport, full stop. ALL players who will become good football players are Americans or American residents, with a few Canadians thrown into the mix. Therefore, all elite young players are available to college recruiters. (The presence of football in Canada, conveniently, means that elite players who the NFL somehow misses, like Warren Moon, have a sub-league to show their stuff in so the NFL can get them back.) Baseball, on the other hand, is a profoundly international sport; many, many excellent players don’t grow up in the US and so are outside the recruiting capabilities of major colleges.

It is very rare for baseball players in the modern era to go directly from HS or college to the major leagues. Even a great college player usually needs at least a year or two “down on the farm.”

Another huge difference- minor leaguers are broke. The pay is extremely low.

There are thousands of players in the minors. Almost none of them will have a major league career. The jump from A to AA & AA to AAA is tough enough- the jump from AAA to the show is huge. Many stellar players in AAA cannot make the leap.

Hitting a round ball with a round bat, and having it go where you want it to go, is one of the hardest things to do in sports. The physics are extreme.

These are all how things have evolved from the original setup. The main cause of it all was the difference between how baseball and football was set up in its early years.

Football, by using ex-college players from the start, had no reason to develop a farm system. Baseball, OTOH, now uses the farm system as a method of develop the young player’s skills.

But the system was set up because baseball came from a system of a lot of small-town teams who fed up to larger teams. Minor league baseball was in several classes: AAA, AA, A, B, C, and D. The star player of a D-class team had a chance to move to a C-Class team. Also, under this system, college baseball players were usually of inferior quality, since the top players were signed to pro contracts very early on.

Basketball and hockey have the same parallel. The first pro basketball players were college stars; the first pro hockey players were from smaller clubs.

There’s no reason for any sport to change the status quo. Football and basketball like having colleges as their minor leagues; baseball and hockey don’t feel college sports give the players enough experience. A college baseball season is maybe 30 games; a minor league season is at least 50 (in the lowest level) and as much as 140 or so.

A college baseball season is more like 50 games, not counting any postseason play. In comparison, the New York-Penn League season is 76 games.

Basically, it comes down to this: major league baseball was a popular professional enterprise before baseball became a popular intercollegiate sport.

On the other hand, football and basketball were popular college sports long before the NFL and NBA became successful leagues.

When the NFL was first established, they tried to gain popularity by signing guys like Red Grange, who had been a national celebrity as a college football player. They desperately needed the star power that former college players could give them. It wasn’t until the Fifties, with the rise of television, that the NFL became as popular as college football.

By that time, the NFL had gotten used to the colleges providing them with talent, and didn’t want to rock the boat.

Unless I missed my count, a AAA season is 144 games, ending the first week of September. When you figure that the majors season is 162 and September is when the rosters expand to 40, a good AAA player could play most of the length of a MLB season, most at the AAA level and perhaps some in the majors. And yes, I grew up watching the Dukes play in Albuquerque and seeing some good players who made the majors, starting, of course, with LA. Some are still playing now, of course.

Bottom line- the college football game is very close to the level of the pro game. College baseball is not.

Baseball needs professional minor leagues to bring players up to the skill level necessary for the big leagues.

Another possible factor:

A professional football player’s career is potentially much shorter than a baseball player’s. You can’t let a quality player waste his talent for years in a minor league system and then bring up a broken shell to the majors when he’s finally discovered. You have to identify the best players early on and get them onto the playing field at the top level, if they are of that calibre.

On the other hand, in baseball, many players need several years of seasoning before they’re ready to play at the top level. A few years of minor league experience can produce a better ball player.